Left - Craig McLachlan and cast. Cover - Caroline O'Connor and Sharon Millerchip. Photos - Jeff Busby
The last time Melbourne saw a fully fledged production of Chicago the Musical was a little over ten years ago. It was at Her Majesty’s theatre and Caroline O’Connor played Velma Kelly. Quite remarkably, this current revival sees O’Connor back on the same stage in the same role. It may be a decade on, but O’Connor is still one good Velma. I can’t remember too much about the production in 1998 other than being wowed by both O’Connor and Chelsea Gibb (who played Roxie Hart). O’Connor is still doing the same choreography and she may not be quite as spritely as she was then, but she does a fine job bringing out both the ruthlessness and vulnerability of Kelly’s character and sustaining the physical and vocal demands of the role.
Playing Roxie to O’Connor’s Velma is Sharon Millerchip who has just won a Helpmann award for her performance (the show has been playing in Brisbane and Sydney before arriving in Melbourne). It’s easy to see why – she’s a dynamo in every aspect – her singing, movement, physical rendering of character and general stage persona. There’s a lot required character-wise – Velma transforms from innocent nobody ("just a dumb mechanic’s wife,” as she sings in Roxie) to brazen celebrity willing to say or do anything to keep her name in the tabloids. Millerchip’s performance is well-nuanced and well-modulated and her sense of when to turn the melodrama up a few notches is spot on.
In comparison to Millerchip’s fully embodied portrayal of Hart, Gina Riley’s Mama Morton doesn’t cut the mustard. Riley can really really sing and her initial appearance and rendition of Morton’s famous song - When You’re Good to Mama - is a promising introduction, but beyond that, the character is disappointingly tentative. Morton is, arguably, the musical’s most intriguing and exciting character. She’s a larger than life mother hen prison warden – curvaceous, sexy, imposing, nasty, maternal and prone to taking bribes and engaging in some less than straight practices. Riley’s one-dimensional interpretation doesn’t hit the mark – it’s as if she doesn’t believe that she can, in fact, fill such big shoes.
Craig McLachlan fares better as swarm lawyer Billy Flynn. He plays him a bit dry, but he pulls it off. Damien Bermingham’s interpretation of Amos Hart, Roxie’s well-meaning but dopey car mechanic husband works and his rendition of Mr. Cellophane has the right mix of pathos and humour.
Written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Chicago’s first outing as a musical was in the 1970s. It was then revived in a more concert style format in the mid 1990s and has been running ever since. Set in prohibition-era Chicago, it’s really all about the story, song and dance, with the set nothing more than a raked platform for the orchestra (conducted by Vanessa Scanmell) surrounded by an askew gold picture frame. Its pertinent themes are straight out of the pages of today’s gossip magazines - the quest for fame, the fickleness of celebrity culture, betrayal, lust and murder. It’s no happily-ever-after hokey boy meets girl love story with cardboard stereotypes of the sexes. It’s gutsy, raunchy and subversive, yet somehow manages to extract empathy for the characters. To top it off there’s not a dud song in the repertoire (All That Jazz, Cell Block Tango, Hot Honey Rag).
Just as famous is the dancing, originally by the legendary choreographer Bob Fosse and later worked on by Ann Reinking (who has starred in the Broadway productions). With its mix of tight body isolations, classic jazz dance, showgirl style, gyrating hips and pelvises, high kicks and splits, it screams sex and gritty razzle dazzle. To really work, it has to be executed with just the right amount of precision, unison and ease. It has to absolutely ooze sex appeal. The chorus nails it sometimes, and the women come across stronger than the men, but often they all try too hard with choreography and end up with Fosse’s hard-edge, but not the sensuality. It could have been opening night nerves, but considering this show has been running inter-state, maybe it needs light refining.
It’s pretty hard not to like Chicago the Musical. The music is incredibly memorable and the characters so deliciously bad. Even if musicals aren’t your thing, this one might be, as it isn’t sappy or sugar-coated. This current production has occasional weakness, but it shouldn’t be missed. O’Connor and Millerchip alone are worth the price of admission. Add in the great music, strong orchestra and physically fit and fine chorus and this is one good night of entertainment!
CHICAGO - The Musical
Venue: Her Majesty’s Theatre | 219 Exhibition Street, Melbourne
Dates: Now showing
Times: Tuesday to Saturday 8pm
Matinees: Wednesday 1pm, Saturday 2pm & Sunday 3pm
Bookings: ticketek.com.au or call 1300 795 012